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Boston Wants to Harness Composting Energy

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Boston Wants to Harness Composting Energy

Environment

Boston Wants to Harness Composting Energy

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In New England, autumn is famous for its foliage. And now, Boston is turning all of those fallen leaves into electricity.

The city is planning a unique composting center that would produce energy year round.

For member station WBUR in Boston, Curt Nickisch reports.

CURT NICKISCH: Like most major cities, Boston composts its yard waste in the open air. So all those leaves from last fall, well, they ended up here in drab, decaying mounds in a muddy clearing.

City Recycling director Susan Cascino is climbing up one pile that's as big as a house, and she's carrying a huge thermometer. It looks like the kind you'd plunge into a roasting turkey, except this one is about 3 feet long.

Ms. SUSAN CASCINO (Recycling Director, Boston): So I am pushing this thermometer into this leaf pile.

NICKISCH: Cascino steps back to watch the dial ring up degrees Fahrenheit, even on this cold March day.

Ms. CASCINO: Here we go. We're at a 100 degrees, 110, 120. So it's cooking.

NICKISCH: That means microbes inside are breaking down these leaves and releasing energy that originally came from the sun.

So, I mean, right now it's at 133 or something like that, which is basically twice the temperature in my house. I would love to have some of this heat.

Ms. CASCINO: Well, yeah, it's another form of energy that we can capture.

NICKISCH: That's exactly what Boston wants to do by moving this operation indoors. A proposed multi-million dollar facility would use the heat year-round to run greenhouses onsite. The building would also capture the methane gas that rotting leaves give off and burn it to generate electricity, enough for 1,500 homes.

Boston's Environmental and Energy Services Chief Jim Hunt says it would also take food scraps from restaurants and hospitals.

Mr. JIM HUNT (Chief of Environmental and Energy Services, Boston): People think it's really cool that we can, you know, be more efficient with our waste and put it back to productive use. It's that old Yankee ingenuity here in New England and the city of Boston.

NICKISCH: It will also take some savvy engineering. The technologies to do this have been around for years, but no U.S. city has ever put it all together on a large scale.

Boston's proposed indoor composting would employ about two dozen folks, including microbiologists and soil chemists, just the sort of good-paying, so-called green-collar jobs that cities are competing for nowadays.

(Soundbite of applause)

NICKISCH: That's why Boston Mayor Tom Menino is all for it.

Mayor TOM MENINO (Boston, Massachusetts): We're really turning Beantown into green town.

(Soundbite of applause)

NICKISCH: It's a cute line. But if Boston actually pulls off this facility, it could turn other cities green with envy says Nora Goldstein. She edits the composting magazine BioCycle. She says most major cities truck their tons of yard waste many miles away, and they are getting killed by high gas prices. An urban facility would save Boston landfill, fuel and greenhouse costs. And the city would make money by selling fertilizer in the extra power. Goldstein says the economics are finally coming together to make the investment pay off.

Ms. NORA GOLDSTEIN (Editor, BioCycle Magazine): People have sort of fantasized about this, so I think if there ever were a time to give it a go, this is would be it.

NICKISCH: Boston is giving it a go. If city leaders have their way, the city could soon turn its Technicolor treescapes into a better kind of urban decay.

For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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